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Sunday, 21 March 2010

Shelford Deli tasting at Cambridge Food and Wine Society

As I have observed before, Cambridge is generally a better place to buy food than to have a meal - it has a profusion of deli's and good butchers', whilst most of the restaurants in the centre of town (albeit with a few notable exceptions) are geared up for the tourist trade and do not have to rely on repeat business.

One of the best, and best-known, deli's is Shelford Delicatessen - set up just over 10 years ago by Drew and Nikki Wilkinson with the main aim of creating a practical, high quality food grocer with the emphasis on home cooked produce and excellent service. Increasingly successful, Drew has recently expanded his offering by making space for sit-down snacks in the deli itself and is looking to develop this further into a small cafe facility.

The Cambridge Food and Wine Society was therefore very fortunate to have Drew present an evening of food from his deli - not just because of the quality of the food, but also because Drew is an excellent presenter whose easy, laid-back charisma belies a real passion for food.

The theme for the evening was vaguely Italian but the wines provided by the society to accompany the food (from Bacchanalia) were selected more for their quality and food-friendliness than to fit in with the food theme.

We started with mozzarella - not just a lump of the stringy cheese cut into slices, but marinaded in creme fraiche with herbs and a hint of chili. This was inspired by burrata - an Italian twist on mozzarella where a generous portion of buffalo double cream is injected into the centre of a mozzarella ball. For obvious reasons, it does not keep or travel well and is therefore difficult to find outside Italy, but Drew's take on it was an inspired beginning and was served with a flavoursome, artisan-style crusty bread which Drew gets made in the deli freshly every day.

Accompanying this was a homemade thick soup, more of a stew in fact, but deliciously flavoured with cavalo nero, Italian black cabbage and plenty of pepper.

The main part of the meal was porchetta - slices of pork roasted with stuffing and herbs, served with a generous squeeze of lemon juice, stuffed roast peppers and white beans with sourdough bread.
To finish, we were treated to what was generally agreed to be the highpoint of the evening - Lemon and Almonds on Vanilla Bread with Mascarpone, slices of crusty bread topped with a chopped nut, lemon and spice mixture and served warm with a generous bowl of mascarpone cheese to spread on top. When seconds were brought round, the whole lot disappeared on our table.

The wines, sourced by members of the committee from Bacchanlia, were universally excellent - a French Viognier, an Argentinian Malbec and an Aussie Shiraz, all retailing for around £7 to £8.

The Wines
Trapiche Melodias Malbec 2007, Argentina - Mendoza (£7.99)
Marktree Soldier's Block Shiraz 2007, Australia - Central Victoria (£6.99)
Domaine de Bahourat Vin de Pays Du Gard Viognier France 2009 (£6.99)


Cambridge Food and Wine Society: http://www.cambridgefoodandwinesociety.org.uk/

Shelford Deli: http://www.shelforddeli.co.uk/

Bacchanalia: http://www.winegod.co.uk/

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Laithwaites - discovery and mystery

I recently invested in a number of cases of wine from Laithwaites - one introductory "Discovery" case and a couple of "mystery" cases.

The Discovery case is basically intended as a special offer for new customers - a mixture of wines with a significant discount against the list price, plus a couple of freebies thrown in; in this instance, three bottles of a basic Rioja plus a fancy corkscrew.

The mystery cases are pretty much just that - you pay £60 plus delivery and get wines with a minimum value of £90. Tantalisingly, there are a number of "golden ticket" cases worth up to £600, so there is potential for some serious bargains and superb wines.

A quick trawl through the Laithwaites website for details on the wines I had received showed that both my mystery cases were worth just a few pennies over £90, but that still represents a reasonable saving, given the cost was only £60 plus delivery. Added to that, I got an extra two bottles as a bonus for ordering two cases.

The wines in the mystery cases are all different and come with no tasting notes - however, as Laithwaites put details of all their wines on their website, it is not a big job to track each one down and get a basic description, price and sundry other details which give some clues as to what to expect.

List prices for the wines range from around £5 for a Sicilian red to £13 for a Sancerre and most of the wines come from the standard "usual suspect" regions for value wines - southern France, inland Spain, Australia. To be sure, there are not too many classic regions here, but I suspect that is not what Laithwaites are about - or certainly not their main focus.

However, there are a couple of more classy and potentially interesting wines - a Chilean Pinot Noir, a Bordeaux Superieur, a Sancerre, a Barossa and a NZ Pinot Noir.

I am slowly working my way through the mystery case wines and posting my thoughts on the Laithwaites website as I go - click here to keep up to date.

Not many Laithwaites customers seem to be doing this, as, with just a handful of reviews, I am already a "Top 25" reviewer; however, it's a great way for the company to get feedback on their wines. In fact, I am generally very impressed with how professional and focused Laithwaites is as a company - which may well be a topic for a future blog, along with some more opinion on the wines themselves.

As for the wines, in general, they have all been well made and pleasant and there certainly has not been a bad wine so far, but quite a few have been unmemorable and not ones that I would buy again. A number also do not quite live up to the billing they receive on the Laithwaites website.

Two particularly good ones, however, have been a rich Cab / Shiraz from La Mancha in Spain and a Bordeaux-style Merlot from the tiny (and high up) region of Yecla, also in Spain.

To be fair, I have started with the cheaper and more basic wines from the mystery case and it remains to be seen how well the more ambitious wines show.

Update 25/05/11: having worked my way through quite a few Laithwaite's wines, I find myself unable to face any more. They are not bad wines per se - just samey, oversold and overpriced and my initial enthusiasm has worn off.

See this posting on Laithwaites for more details on how I fell out of love with all this:



Laithwaites - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/

Gran Oristan - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/DWBase/jsp/templates/article/productDetails.jsp?productId=prod513723

Casa Virola - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/DWBase/jsp/templates/article/productDetails.jsp?productId=prod502386

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Sausage and Beer Tasting with the Cambridge Food and Wine Society

Cambridge's status as a tourist centre means that, in general, it is not a great area for eating out as most of the restaurant chains in the centre of town do not have to rely on repeat business.

However, the good news for those of us that actually live and do our shopping here, is that Cambridge and its environs are blessed with a good number of delicatessens and butchers' supplying organic, free-range meat in various forms.

The Cambridge Food and Wine Society had previously held a butchery evening, run by Knibbs Meat Safe, but here was a chance to sample the produce of various local butchers' and delis in a comparative testing of sausages with home-made chutneys and beers to wash it all down.

As a newcomer to sausage-tasting, I was intrigued to learn the basis for tasting and judging sausages - without going into too much detail about the process, there are points awarded for appearance (both cooked and uncooked), level of fattiness, taste, texture and so on. For me, judging a sausage on its uncooked appearance seems a bit like judging a red Burgundy based on whether you happen to find Pinot Noir a particularly attractive sort of grape variety, but in any case there were no raw sausages on display here.

All the sausages had been pre-cooked (some shallow-fried, some poached) and were served cold with chutneys and accompanying beers. On our table, we followed the order of the beers as the sausages were served - I don't know how much thought had gone into matching the beers to the sausages, but they did seem go very well together.

There was an element of "blind-tasting" in the way the sausages were presented - we were given details of where they had come from and had to guess at the meat used plus any flavourings. We then scored each sausage against various criteria and came up with a total score for each.

At the end of the evening, there was a show of hands to determine the top (hot) dog of the sausage challenge. In the end, it was a tie between the "Herby" sausage from Knibbs Meat Safe at Burwash Manor and a "Black Olive, Parma Ham and Pork" sausage from Barker Brothers in Shelford.

For me, the Herby sausage scored well, but was not my overall favourite - that was the Gloucester Old Spot Apple and Cider from Pigs in Parcels, based in Fowlmere, which tasted lovely, had great texture and just the right level of fattiness. The black olive etc sausage I found a little over-salted and actually was my lowest-scoring sausage. However, it was not all bad news for Barker Brothers, as their second offering of the night, called simply the "Special" was my second favourite - like the Gloucester Old Spot, it was a well-made but traditional sausage of pork and sage.

Perhaps the most exotic sausage of the evening came from Andrew Northrop and had a Thai theme, with chili, paprika, coconut and lemongrass. Other more unusual sausages included game from Radwinter Wild Game, a South African Boewors from Baobab Treats and a pork double minced with ginger from Gog Magog Hills.

The chutneys were a mixture of shop-bought and home-made and I particularly liked the apple, orange and walnut, which tasted like a Christmas pudding chutney and was delicious. The beers, a mixture of real ales, stouts and the odd lager were all excellent, but Foreign Extra Guinness deserves a special mention not just as it is somewhat unusual and hard to find but also for its heady 7.3% alcohol level.

A full run-down of the sausages with prices per kilo, beers and chutneys is below:


- Knibbs Meat Safe, £6.25, Coriander and Red Onion
- Radwinter Wild Game Co £6.55, Wild Game
- Knibbs Meat Safe, £6.99, Herby
- Pigs in Parcels, £9.43, Gloucester Old Spot, Apple and Cider
- Priors Hall Farm, £9.40, Traditional Pork
- Barker Brothers, £10.00, Black Olive, Parma Ham and Pork
- Waller and Son, £6.70, Royal Cambridge
- Barker Brothers, £10.00, Special
- Andrew Northrop, £7.69, Red Thai and Coconut
- Baobab Treats, £9.09, Boewors
- Gog Magog Hills, £7.25, Pork double minced with ginger


- Apple, orange and walnut (a Christmas pudding chutney)
- Hot pear (very hot !)
- Garlic and apricot (deliciously sweet)
- Red tomato (sharp and crunchy)


SA GOLD, BRAINS, 4.7%: bright golden colour. After an initial malty aroma, the chicory qualities of the hops come through, with a touch of flint. On the palate that broad, caramel and burnt orange malt character is again quite powerful, but it is balanced by the fresh, leafy hoppiness and a zesty appeal. Dry and fresh in the finish, this is a crisp and satisfying beer. [Short-listed for CAMRA Golden Ale of the Year 2009]

MAPLE MOON HOLTS 4.8% A Silver Medal winner in the International Brewing Awards, this beer is brewed using unique subtle maple flavouring, giving it a rather sweet caramel after taste. A lighter more malty ale perfect for complementing spicy foods.

BARN STORMER BATH ALES 4.5%: Brewed with a mixture of Maris Otter, Chocolate and Crystal malts together with Brambling Cross hops, this full-bodied dark ale is well balanced and smooth with a malty, bitter, dry finish. [Short-listed for CAMRA Strong Bitter of the Year 2009]

OLD SPECKLED HEN GREEN KING 5.2%: There's a distinctive biscuity quality on the nose, and quite complex set of spice, fruit and hop aromas. On the palate the beer is surprisingly light in some respects,though there is plenty of flavour, with more of that shortbread and malty richness and a nice bitter finish. (Originally brewed at Morlands of Abingdon)

BUDVEISER BUDVAR 5.0%: Medium gold colour with quite a persistent white head. Perfumed floral note on the nose at first, before a gentle, grassy hoppiness emerges and just a hint of toast. On the palate it is mellow and smooth, with quite a creamy texture and moderate, subtle hop bitterness. There's an orangy tang of citrus acidity in the finish of this elegant, very drinkable lager.

ORIGINAL GUINNESS 4.5%: This is an Irish-brewed version of Guinness, and it pours a very dark amber which is almost black, with a coffee-coloured head. The nose is biscuity, with a nice hoppy edge. On the palate it is smooth and creamy-textured, with a big raft of bitter, burnt, dark-roasted hop bitterness and good acidity in the finish.

FOREIGN EXTRA GUINNESS 7.3%: Foreign Extra Stout (FES) is brewed with pale malt, 25% flaked barley and 10% roasted barley. Galena, Nugget and Target hop varieties create a mighty 60 units of bitterness. The aroma is complex, with bitter roasted grain, a woody and vinous note and spicy hop resins. The palate is bitter from roasted grain and hops, balanced by dark fruit, with a long, dry and bitter finish with hints of liquorice and dark mysterious fruits, including something akin to sour bananas.


Knibbs Meat Safe - http://www.burwashmanor.net/01_shops_kms.asp
Radwinter Wild Game - http://www.radwinterwildgame.com/
Pigs in Parcels - http://www.pigsinparcels.co.uk/
Priors Hall Farm - no website, located at Priors Hall, Lindsell, Dunmow, Essex CM63QR
Barker Brothers - http://www.barkerbrosbutchers.co.uk/Site/HOME.html
A Waller & Son - no website, located at 15A Victoria Avenue, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire CB4 1EG
Andrew Northrop - no website, located at 114 Mill Road, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB1 2BQ
Gog Magog Hills - http://www.gogmagoghills.com/